Being First: An Informal History of the Early Peace Corps
by Robert Klein (Ghana 1961–63)
Reviewed by Kevin Lowther (Sierra Leone 1963–65)
GHANA I — Peace Corps groups were Roman-numeraled in the early years — began with 58 trainees at the University of California at Berkeley. It was July 1961, four months after President John F. Kennedy asked R. Sargent Shriver to establish the Peace Corps. The 58 guinea pigs and their trainers were all too aware that the experiment could rise or fall on the basis of their performance.
“That challenge,” Robert Klein writes in Being First, “created a sense of uniqueness which has lasted through the years.” Fifty years, of course, and counting.
Klein was a 32-year-old teacher in Harlem when he volunteered. Kennedy’s summons “added a moral dimension” to Klein’s “restless romanticized adventurism.” The group supposedly had been sifted through a fine mesh of selection criteria. Klein et al had their doubts. “Although we were constantly told how select a group of trainees we were, the haste with which we had been gathered led us to believe that, in fact, we were probably the first 58 people who had applied to the Peace Corps.”
This tongue-in-cheek wit infuses Klein’s breezy and well-written account of Ghana I, its exemplary service and its enduring cohesion. Over the years, Klein has interviewed Ghana I veterans, former trainers and staff to reconstruct what he calls an “informal history” of the Peace Corps’ formative period.
Klein and his Ghana I comrades make no claim to being anything other than the first PCVs on foreign soil. What is remarkable, in Klein’s telling, is how closely their frustrations and fragile achievements foretold what was to come for the 200,000-plus Volunteers who have followed. He captures the tension which arose, almost immediately, between early Peace Corps staff who emphasized “doing a job” and those who believed that making friends across cultural barriers was the litmus test for Volunteers’ effectiveness.
When he visited his pioneers in Ghana, Shriver — according to one Volunteer’s recollection — was explicit: The job was paramount. But Franklin Williams and Richard Goodwin, headquarters heavies who accompanied Shriver, flogged a very different message: The primary objective was to counter the image of foreign aid workers’ cultural insensitivity, searingly portrayed in the The Ugly American, a novel published just three years earlier.
Shriver was well aware of the jousting he was encouraging between pragmatic, program-oriented staff such as Warren Wiggins and John Alexander, who had come over from the forerunner of USAID; and, in Klein’s words, “more idealistic global thinkers,” such as Harris Wofford and Bill Moyers.
George Carter, the first country director in Ghana, referred to these contending camps as the “hard heads” and the “soft heads.” Wiggins, a hard head who had helped to crystallize the Peace Corps’ mission in “The Towering Task,” believed that Volunteers should focus on achieving concrete development objectives. The soft heads were more enamored by the prospect of Volunteers working shoulder-to-shoulder with the people and demonstrating Americans’ supposedly innate egalitarianism.
Both groups, Klein writes, “were ultimately hostage to the reality that it was people like me, less ideological and more activist, who would actually decide what a Peace Corps Volunteer was by being one.”
Carter, whom Klein interviewed a few years before his death in 2001, confessed that he thought Kennedy’s proposed Peace Corps was a “piece of nonsense.” An experienced Africa hand, Carter was hoping for an ambassadorship in West Africa and believed that sending naïve, mostly white “kids” to Africa was asking for trouble. Shriver, of course, convinced him otherwise. So did Ghana I.
The group, who met with President Kennedy in the White House rose garden shortly before departing, were hardly representative of the American demographic. Just two were African-American. A white Virginian was the only Southerner. Nor did they meet the qualifications set by Ghana’s skeptical Ministry of Education. Ghana wanted only teachers with master’s degrees, preferably in math and science. The ministry expressly asked that Volunteers be graduates from leading Ivy League universities. Late in the day, two academics involved in the training had to presume upon their friendship with Ghana’s leader, Kwame Nkrumah, to persuade him to accept the motlier crew assembled by the Peace Corps.
Shriver, Nkrumah and the members of Ghana I in fact shared a common vision of the Peace Corps’ raison d’etre: To do jobs that needed doing and for which there were no qualified Ghanaians. The Ghana government underscored this by insisting that it pay the Volunteers’ salaries.
Klein, who later directed the Peace Corps program in Ghana and innovated in-country training, abstains from editorializing about the Peace Corps in its longer-term or contemporary contexts. He is content to recall how the Peace Corps came to be, his experience as a Volunteer in remote western Ghana and the memories of several of his compatriots. He dedicates Being First to the Ghanaians “who had the grace and charm to put up with us. . . .”
Sarge would have loved that.
Kevin G. Lowther taught secondary school history as a member of Sierra Leone IV (1963–65). He subsequently served in several headquarters positions, principally in the Africa regional office. In 1970, he assisted C. Payne Lucas in establishing Africare and later managed its Southern Africa programs for 29 years before retiring in 2007. In 1978, he and Lucas published Keeping Kennedy’s Promise, a critical analysis of the Peace Corps during its first decade. More recently, Lowther has written a biography of a Sierra Leonean who survived slavery in America and returned to his homeland to fight the slave trade. The African American Odyssey of John Kizell, to be released May 15 by the University of South Carolina Press, is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.
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